Art and Craft Shows
Tips for Success

Craft Shows Overview

If you’ve been turning for a while and your collection of finished woodturnings is growing faster than your available storage space can accommodate, it may be time for you to consider selling some of your work. Selling your work can provide extra income to soften the blow when you want to purchase new tools, supplies and equipment for your studio. It can also provide additional income if you are retired, or if you need/want to supplement the income from your current job.

As attractive as the idea of generating income from your turning passion sounds, direct sales to the public is not for everyone. Art and craft shows can be grueling, especially if you do more than a few every year. I should know, I used to exhibit at 35 to 40 art and craft shows per year when I was doing retail shows. I learned a few things during the years I sold direct to the public (retail) that will help you to get started. Remember that you will need to constantly assess your product line, booth setup and marketing as you go along. Continuous improvement of your product lines, as well as your sales and marketing strategies is necessary for success in sales. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Start with Local Craft Shows: Selling your turnings at local art and craft shows is a good way to get your feet wet when selling to the general public. Your expenses will be much lower (booth fee, gas, food etc) than participating at a show across the state, or in another state since you will not have any expenses for a hotel, airfare, shipping or other associated expenses. Doing a few local craft shows will also give you an idea of what it’s like to sell to the general public and it will also help you to refine your sales techniques and prices. Watch your local papers for upcoming art and craft shows at churches, fairs or community events, or go online for event listings. Use your favorite search engine to search for “Craft Shows” +(The state you live in) for listings. You can also search for “Art Shows” in your area, or ask other woodturners that sell their work for show recommendations.
  • Always Preview First: If possible, always preview the show prior to exhibiting your work. Don’t be fooled by fancy marketing brochures… Walk the show for yourself! Talk to other artists to get a feel for the show and the promoter. Does the promoter do what they say they will? Does the quality of the show live up to your standards? Is the show well attended? The only time I have ever been burned by a show was back in the early days when I booked a show without previewing it first. Been there, done that and got a cheesy T-shirt to prove it. It’s amazing how some craft shows tout their shows in their marketing brochure and then to see what the show actually looks like when it opens. Don’t be fooled and preview the show first. You’ll be glad you did!

  • Have Ample Inventory: It’s exceptionally hard, if not impossible to judge what the “hot” item will be in every show - small bowls, pens, stoppers, boxes, large hollow forms? Do your best to bring an ample supply of finished products for each show in various price ranges. Adjust and replenish your inventory as necessary after every show. While you can always take an order for something you’ve sold out of, I’ve found that many customers do not prefer to order and wait for delivery – especially if they have never dealt with you before. Many low cost sales (less than $100.00) are “impulse” purchases and the buyer wants to leave with the item in hand. You will never get perfect at judging how much of each item to have on hand, but after a few craft shows you will get pretty good at estimating your future needs.
  • Look Professional: It takes money to make money. That means you need to have basic business supplies when selling to the public like business cards, a brochure about you and your studio, a website (optional) that shows more of your work, special/custom order forms, a catalog if you offer a large range of products, a book showing awards you’ve won, or other art and craft shows that you’ve participated in recently, or a portfolio of your work. If professionally printed materials are too expensive, print your own on your computer or if you’re not good with computers, ask a friend or one of your tech savvy children to help you.

  • Dress Appropriately: Don’t go to the show in the tattered old blue jeans you used to paint the house, dress appropriately for every show. If the show is outside and it’s going to be hot, bring some extra clothes. If you get too sweaty, you can change into some fresh clothes as necessary.

  • Purchasing Options: Always offer several ways for your customers to purchase their items. Accepting nothing but cash is only going to limit your sales. If you’re serious about selling, you’ll need a merchant account so you can accept credit cards. During the first few years of my studio, I only accepted cash or checks – what a big mistake! When I finally decided to get a merchant account and started accepting credit cards, my sales more than tripled! If you don’t like the thought of a small percentage of your sales going to some credit card company, then you’re going to lose a lot of sales. When we started accepting credit cards, about 95% of all of our subsequent sales were on credit cards. With the current economic conditions, many buyers prefer plastic to cash or checks. There are lots of companies who can help you to establish a merchant account so you can accept credit cards. Note: A merchant account is a type of bank account that allows businesses to accept credit or debit cards for payment. Check with your local bank, your favorite credit card company, or search online for “Merchant Account.” Fees vary wildly, so check around for the best deal.
  • Partner with a Friend: One way to lower your overall show costs is to split the booth with another woodturner. Some art or craft shows will not allow this, so check before committing to a show if you want to try this option. Make sure that the person you partner with is reliable and has the same dedication to professional practices as you do… Working the booth with a friend also allows you to take a break now and then, so you are fresh and rested throughout the day. Although I’ve never partnered in a sales booth with another woodturner before, I have a few friends who have done this with good results.

  • Booth Needs: If you will be doing outdoor art and craft shows, you’re going to need some type of portable tent unless it’s provided by the show. Some craft shows will rent you a tent, so check first if you are on a tight budget. Most exhibitors use an EZ-UP folding tent (available at Sam’s and Costco), but there are other manufacturers as well. These can also be used on inside art and craft shows, since they are great for hanging lights from and work to visually define your booth space. You might also consider borrowing/renting a tent from another woodturner that you know, to help keep your expenses low until you get more established. Note: Some art and craft shows will only allow certain coloured tent covers, so check before buying your tent, or change the tent cover as needed. You will also need a professionally printed sign for your booth. Look for a low cost sign/banner printing company in your area. (The sign I had made for my booth cost about $60.00.)
  • Make a List: You need to sit down and write up a list for what you need in your booth… Lights, extension cords, pens, writing tablet, flashlight, tables, tiered shelving, bags for purchases, duct tape, spring clamps, business card holder, stapler, catalogs, tables, table covers, cooler, drinks, calculator, extension cords, lights and tons of other items. During the slack time at each show, write down what you forgot or what you thought about during the show that you needed and add it to your show list. After a few art and craft shows you will have a good handle on what you need in your booth.
  • Establish a Mailing List: Offer customers and visitors the opportunity to sign up for a mailing list for your studio. If they don’t want to, that’s ok. If they do, all the better for you. As you build your studio name and customer list, you can send postcards to your list about upcoming art and craft shows you will be doing in their area. This is a great way to get more traffic in your booth of folks that are interested in your products. Offer a discount for any purchase made at the show, when they bring the postcard to the show. That will help you to determine if your fine point marketing is working.

  • Develop a Thick Skin: There is really no easy way to say this, so here goes… When you sell to the general public you have to develop a thick skin. You will hear all sorts of things, as well as hundreds of opinions on your work. One buyer may scoff at the thought of paying $600.00 for a bowl and say they can get a bowl just as nice at XMart, or some similar store for $10.00. Of course you know that your bowl is nothing like those found at XMart. Your bowl was carefully crafted out of a solid block of Walnut Burr, with exceptional figure. It also had numerous coats of a hand-applied finish and was buffed to perfection. The buyer on the other hand, may not appreciate any of that, let along be able to afford a $600.00 bowl and may well fill your ear with their opinion of you and your prices. I’ve seen my share of these types of folks in the last 14 years. Water off a ducks back… Move on to those who appreciate fine art and crafts and have the discretionary income to acquire what they want… Never take what someone says personally, just smile and move on the next customer.
  • Remember, Your Opinion is Usually Irrelevant: This is another hard lesson for many people to learn. Although buyers may ask you opinion about various things concerning your work, when it comes time to buy something, their opinion is all that really counts – because it’s their money they are spending! For example, if a buyer enters your booth and sees a display of bottle stoppers in various plastics or light woods, they may ask if you have any other stoppers available, say in a dark wood. They might even say that they would never consider buying something made of plastic or a light coloured wood, since they think that looks “tacky.” You may have the best stoppers in the world in your booth, but this buyer will never consider one because they want one in a dark wood. Use this as an opportunity to write a custom order for a Walnut or Ebony stopper and make sure you have a good variety of stoppers in various woods on hand for the next show. Never let your personal opinions limit your sales! Everyone has their favorites, endeavor to offer a wide variety of products and materials in your booth and you will stand a better chance at having a profitable show.
  • Consider Doing a Demo in Your Booth: If the show will allow demonstrations, consider doing a few throughout the day. It’s a great way to attract visitors to your booth during a big show. If you opt for this, make sure you have help in the booth so your sales do not suffer as you are doing the demo. Keep the demo short and make the project easy like a pen, a stopper, or a spinning top. Remember, you’re not there to do demos; you’re there to sell your work.

  • Educate Yourself: You should always present yourself as a professional artist/craftsperson. That means that you need to learn about the various materials and products you are selling. The salad bowl your customer is admiring is not made from “Maple Wood”; it's made from Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) and was cut down when a freeway feeder road was widened in your area. The tree was 3’ across at the ground when it was cut and the beautiful figure in the bowl is known as “Fiddleback”…. You get the idea. Buyers want to know a little something about the piece they are buying. Be ready to share with them a few things about the wood, or how you turned it and your passion for woodturning.

This list could easily extend to more than 100 items, but these should get you started and get your creative juices flowing as you think about selling your work. In future editions of the "Marketing Tip of the Month" in Lathe Talk, we will explore more about marketing your woodturnings, how to price your work and also how to effectively market yourself and your studio.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.